Doing the slam: Tales from the mosh pit, where rock ‘n’ roll is a contact sport

THESE DAYS, rock ‘n’ roll has become a contact sport. Not all rock ‘n’ roll, of course. You won’t see slam dancing at a Moody Blues show, and David Crosby isn’t likely to attempt a stage-dive. But action that was once confined to the hardcore punk scene of the early ’80s has crossed over and become a mainstream phenomenon: Kids will slam, dive and body-surf to virtually any band with a semblance of a hard edge.

“It used to be tied to what was happening on stage,” says Peter Prescott, who drummed and sang with Volcano Suns until recently. “Now, it just seems that’s what they come to do.” And so, if you’re at a concert by hard-rocking bands such as Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Soundgarden, Ministry or Nine Inch Nails, look out below. And above. And to the side.

Maybe you first saw it on TV, in the Nirvana video ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. The clip is filmed in what would seem to be a high-school gymnasium. As Nirvana begins to churn away, Kurt Cobain sings, “Here we are now! Entertain us!/ I feel stupid/ And contagious!” The kids in the bleachers begin to bang their heads, slowly, in time. The kids are real fans, not actors: They’re there because an L.A. college radio station announced where and when to show up.

As the song heats up, the kids get more aggressive, slamming into each other, one flipping up onto the shoulders and outstretched hands of others, another hanging from a basketball rim. The frenzy accelerates, and as the song’s climax approaches, the director cuts back more and more frequently to the crowd. A clear message: The band and crowd are one.

Here’s the scene in Boston, at an all-ages concert by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones at the Paradise. The club is packed and dark. A blast of bombastic orchestral music comes over the sound system, signaling the band’s approach. Guitarist Nate Albert hits the stage and starts clanging away on a metallic riff; suddenly, singer Dicky Barrett and bassist Joe Gittelman race from the wings onto the stage and… out into the crowd. They’re caught by their fans and passed around, until, finally, they’re steered back to the stage and the show “proper” begins. “Kids were flying up in the air,” said the band’s producer Paul Kolderie. “The band was so over-revving, so over the top. It was a huge sweaty mess.”

At the Walter Brown Arena last fall, for a sold-out Red Hot Chili Peppers concert, the so-called “mosh pit” – the spot where the highly pumped fans do their highly physical, agitated act – reached deep into the crowd. Some fans were jammed against the barricade separating band from crowd. A few lost shoes and shirts. Those fans that were crushed against the barricade, and didn’t want to be, were plucked from the front rows by security and escorted back out. Other security men accepted the bodies of the kids passed overhead from the crowd, lowered them to the floor as safely as possible and ushered them back out into the pit. The unofficial rule: Two warnings and then an ejection. Earlier, during Pearl Jam’s set, singer Eddie Vedder made it a point to dive into the crowd and make it to the soundboard and back.

But what looks dangerous and out-of-control to an outsider can seem much more predictable, even disciplined, to an insider. Slam dancing, like the other activities in the mosh pit, is much more like a rugby scrum than a rumble – it has its own unspoken rules. The standards evolved out of the pogo dancing done to the punk rock of the late ’70s – mostly an up-and-down affair, with the odd choke hold on your partner. The hard-core punks of the early ’80s were more horizontally inclined, and the body-check slam gained popularity. Today’s slamming is a varied free-for-all.

There are bruises and bumps, but more serious injuries seem to be rare. “I don’t recall any serious injuries from the Paradise, Axis or any of the theater shows,” says Goodman. “I don’t recall anybody having to be taken away by ambulance. At T.T. the Bear’s, once or twice, a year or so ago, there were kids coming from the pit who were bleeding – I remember some kid broke his nose flying into the pit. There were no injuries at Great Woods for the Lollapalooza tour,” where the mosh pit on the lawn was immense and scary-looking.

“I haven’t seen too many all-out brawls,” says Michael Mussori, who has been working security details at rock shows for about five years. “Not like in the Aerosmith days of the ’70s.”

The worst injury Mussori remembers is from the Morrissey concert at Great Woods last summer, when a young girl was crushed up against the front barricade when kids rushed the stage. He says members of the security team kept asking her if she wanted to be pulled up and out, but she refused. Near the end, Mussori says, she passed out; eventually she was carried off in an ambulance with cracked ribs.

Not long ago, Neil Jacobsen, a 35-year-old talent agent for a rock booking agency in Los Angeles, decided to try slamming for himself. He crashed a Nirvana mosh pit for more than an hour and made three stage-dives. “You only live once,” he says. “I wanted to experience firsthand what it was all about. The mosh pit was cool – real friendly, in a bizarre way. I didn’t see anybody in there who wanted to hurt anybody.

“It’s a weird feeling, diving into the people,” continues Jacobsen, who used to book bands for Boston’s preeminent concert promoter, the Don Law Co. “You’ve got to have a lot of trust. The vibe is a release of energy. You get caught up in it. It’s a euphoric experience – you get a real adrenaline high. You just get all hot and sweaty and it’s like a real runner’s high. You get to the point where you’re gliding, bouncing off people, and smiling. No one’s out to do anything negative.”

Rodney Graham, manager of the Paradise, agrees: “These kids just want to have the best time of their lives.”

Most bands welcome the aggression and the contact with the audience, says Gerry Gerrard, an agent for the InterTalent Agency, which books Nine Inch Nails, Einsturzende Neubauten, Front Line Assembly, Swans and Machines of Loving Grace. “I won’t say I encourage it, but I don’t see it does any harm,” says Gerrard. “It can spoil it for some of the fans who want to be at the front, but basically if that’s what the crowd wants to do, it’s fine. Most of the artists I work with don’t mind it at all, as long as they don’t mess with the band. If somebody does get violent, my bands would be the first to point them out to security.”

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails says his take on stage diving and slamming evolved over time. “From my perspective,” he says, “when I first saw people stage diving, I saw it as a leftover from the punk era – Circle Jerks shows. When I saw it at my shows, initially, I thought it was inappropriate. But then I realized we’re appealing to a new generation and our show is angry. They throw it at me; I want to throw it back at them. My show is intended to get you actually involved, angry and mad, to really connect… I’ve lost teeth at shows. I’m into the energy. I want to create that feeling of chaos, that you’re part of the melee. It scares you, but it entertains you. I want them to go through an ordeal.”

At a Nine Inch Nails show at Avalon last year, a fan climbed the cage that surrounded NIN’s drummer and executed a swan dive of at least 20 feet out into the audience. Members of the crowd looked at each other in astonishment – and applauded the diver’s audacity or foolhardiness.

Boston rock clubs seem to take the slamming and diving in stride. “I don’t think we’ve had any serious problems,” says Jodi Goodman, talent buyer for the Don Law Co. “Basically, you need to prepare, maybe putting on more security for shows that have a reputation for having a rowdy crowd. But we’ve never told a band we wouldn’t book a show if their audience is too rowdy. It’s part of the excitement of the show. A lot of the kids know what to expect – they stand in the back, or they stand in the front and participate and choose to be liable for whatever might come. If it’s too rowdy, you walk away.”

“Moshing and diving is quite enjoyable to watch,” says Pixies drummer David Lovering. “It gets to be a problem in certain cases when people take it over the edge. It’s threatening in some ways. We don’t condone it that much; sometimes you can’t control it. The last show we did, in New York, we were overrun during the last song – 10 or so people on stage. It did seem like it was getting threatening.”

Would he ever stage-dive himself?

“I would do it as a joke,” Lovering says, laughing. “I don’t think I could really get into it, at least at my age right now, 30.”

The Cramps’ Lux Interior has been known to warn stage invaders to keep away, and even to punch out a particularly annoying offender.

The left-wing industrial dance band Consolidated takes an adamant stand against slamming and diving. “You mean childish, immature, male bonding?” responds drummer Philip Steir, when asked about today’s scene. “My objection,” he continues, “is on a number of levels. It infringes on the rights of people that want to enjoy a show without being physically assaulted. Our whole point is to provide a forum for education, information and, of course, entertainment. Society promotes violence, domination, greed and power, and these are all the things I see when I look into a mosh pit. When it happens, we stop the show. We’ve done it a million times. But we’ve never walked off.”

These days, he says, Consolidated explains its no-slam policy to fans before a show starts.

“I’ve noticed shows when it seemed out of context,” says Boston-based producer Gary Smith, who’s worked with the Feelies, Chills and Throwing Muses, among others. “I enjoy watching the show undisturbed, even if means I’m doing my own two-step in my own space. I’d prefer not to have that experience disrupted by someone else’s good time. And when someone gets hurt, it’s unpleasant. I know,” he concludes with a laugh, “it sounds so un-rock ‘n’ roll.”

It may indeed sound un-rock ‘n’ roll to an increasing number of fans, those for whom life is led to its fullest in the mosh pit. Sweat is the grease, bruises are badges, and rock ‘n’ roll is the sound track.

The security staff’s approach: gently but firmly

So how does the security staff approach a rock concert where there’s likely to be slam dancing and other hyperphysical behavior?

“What you basically do is approach it as a hands-off policy and make sure the audience has the best time it can without injuring other patrons,” replies Billy Shinkwin, director of Security Technology Inc., which supplies the security staff for the numerous concerts booked by the Don Law Co.

“The only thing we try to discourage,” says Shinkwin, “is the jumping on stage and back into the audience. It’s good for the audience to see, but it’s bad for the person who gets landed upon. The making of circles and the slamming, the passing each other over the head – that’s stuff we can live with and the band can live with… The audience actually monitors it themselves and handles it themselves.”

Michael Mussori, 24, is generally one of the six to 10 guys on the front lines at Don Law shows. He says that over the five years he’s been working security, he’s seen increasing levels of physicality. “The slam dancing and body-surfing has really taken off,” he says.

Does this bother him?

No way: “If I wasn’t working here, I’d be right out there body-surfing.” His own favorite acts include hard-edge heavyweights such as Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails. “We work to try and keep in mind the kids aren’t doing it to tick us off. They’re just having fun.”

© Jim SullivanThe Boston Globe, 23 February 1992

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